While the value of the global economy continues to stall from the COVID-19 pandemic, space exploration is emerging as a business powerhouse that could soon be worth a trillion dollars.
From private companies such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX, to government entities including NASA and the European Space Agency, efforts to explore and commercialise space are accelerating.
As the world’s economy continues its downward spiral, the space sector offers a pertinent example of how businesses can rise above the most pressing challenges.
By its very nature, space exploration can be extremely risky and expensive.
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But the space sector has become something of a sure bet for investment by governments and private companies because of its ruthless commitment to constant improvement.
Like the mining industry, space exploration is rigorously committed to safety and improving the efficiency and effectiveness of its systems.
And just like mining, a failure in the space sector can cost millions of dollars.
It can also cost lives.
In order to succeed, the space sector must bake the elements of success into everything it does, pushing the envelope of what’s possible with daring missions that are developed from a sturdy foundation of processes and technologies developed with incredible attention to detail.
In my work to unlock the power of data for businesses, time and again I see the emphasis placed on simply bolting on technology as a silver bullet solution.
Companies that use technology to improve their systems and processes succeed, while those who simply hope a new machine or algorithm will bring them a breakthrough will fail.
The success of the space sector proves that workplace culture and processes are the keys to success, and it has three ways of doing it I think we can learn from.
1. A culture of continuous improvement
In the early days of space exploration at NASA, scores of rockets blew up on the launch pad with alarming regularity.
But every failure was picked apart in ruthless detail so that changes could be made.
Sure enough, the rockets improved and began to soar, launching the Mercury orbit missions that led to the Gemini technology development missions that led to the Apollo missions that put man on the moon.
Instead of designing a new rocket, space capsule or computer after each failure, the teams at NASA were empowered to confront problems openly and without penalty.
This happened because, from the beginning, NASA fostered a culture of continuous improvement so that nothing was left to chance.
Businesses that have a culture that lets problems slide or continue unresolved will face difficulties even in a buoyant market, but in a time of challenge, these shortcomings will be quickly exposed.
Successful entrepreneurs and businesses aren’t afraid of problems; they lean into them.
So look carefully at the ways your company handles problems, and gauge whether your response to them is as encouraging as the space sector.
2. Processes that can be quickly improved
Leading on from this culture of improvement, space agencies worldwide have developed work processes or workflows that actively embrace improvement.
Instead of rigid rules, space sector processes allow engineers and astronauts to ‘work the problem’ and make adjustments as needed.
A great example of this in action is the work by Elon Musk’s SpaceX to create reusable rockets that can take a payload into space then return to earth and land at a recovery site.
While the early rockets launched successfully, landing them was troublesome with repeated, and explosive, failures time after time.
But because the culture of improvement SpaceX had established, its working processes allowed for these failures to become part of the development, with each circumstance leading to changes that ultimately allowed for success.
The goal of the process never changed — launch and then recover a rocket — but the steps that were taken to reach the success were constantly updated.
The point here is that successful businesses use their culture of improvement to create flexible working processes that allow for swift change.
With too many layers of bureaucracy, development can stall, even if workers are empowered to identify problems. Successful businesses establish work processes that can be altered swiftly to accommodate new information.
3. Unbounded enterprise from data
The common thread running through creating both a culture of improvement and processes that allow swift change is that the space sector expertly harnesses the power of data.
There is no guesswork in the space sector.
Everything that’s done is created from a solid set of data, whether it’s meteorological observations to decide the launch window for a rocket, or a complex set of algorithms to control the trajectory through the stratosphere.
Everything is quantified, measured and observed. But this data is not gathered for its own sake.
Space agencies such as NASA take the data, collate it, and then use it to create processes and technologies that workers can follow and use.
They are empowered by data, freeing them to pursue what I like to call ‘unbounded enterprise’ — where anything is possible because data, backed by a culture of continuous improvement, is used as a super-tool to create effective solutions.
The space sector launches rockets into space and lands rovers on Mars millions of miles away because it has taken the time and pain to work everything out, and apply what it has learned ruthlessly.
Bringing it all together, successful companies embrace the use of data to push what’s possible to the limit, within a culture of improvement and open processes that leaves nothing to chance.
In effect, this creates processes that improve themselves.
Reaching for the stars with data
Businesses worldwide are always looking for technology solutions that will solve all their problems.
But no technology can work to its full potential without a company taking the time to get its culture and processes right. And everything starts with embracing the hard truth of data.
Through building a data-driven workplace that bakes the elements of success into the DNA of everything they do, space agencies worldwide pursue their lofty goals with the confidence that comes from knowing they have done everything to ensure they soar.
We see the same dedication to excellence in the mining industry with its constant devotion to safety, technological advancement and efficiency.
This never-ending search for information produces the best possible culture that produces the best possible results, from the nuts and bolts holding the space capsules together to the algorithms calculating trajectories.
To those of us who are more earthbound, the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed our businesses to an extreme test of resilience.
But we can overcome this by taking the opportunity to think deeply about how to improve our processes, embracing data-driven solutions that will help create a culture of improvement.
From this wide-open stance, we can create processes that allow real and effective change, taking the best of the space sector and applying it to our own missions.
Because, for space exploration, failure is not an option. And neither should it be for any other business or field of entrepreneurship.